IN HIS DESCRIPTION of Bismarck's political and diplomatic talents, Edward Crankshaw is as lavish with praise as the most ardent hagiographer. He calls Bismarck the supreme political virtuoso of his time, a genius with a sense of proportion unusual in a genius, a past master in the arts of the possible.

Crankshaw's entire book, however, is dedicated to the proposition that all these talents were perverted and misused, fundamentally because Bismarck possessed no system of values, no standards of human decency or civilized behavior. His only value was himself, his entire career was devoted to his personal self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizment, to the extension and consolidation of his personal power, and to a venal quest for wealth and property. Utterly contemptuous of humanity, he felt no sense of loyalty to his monarch, to Prussia, to Germany, to Europe, or to his social class. The crown, the state, and all those who served him, were no more than footstools on which to raise himself, instruments to be used and if necessary discarded in his pathological quest for domination. If he paid lip-service to a faith in God, it was only because he regarded himself as having a special relationship with God. To God alone he chose to answer for his actions, and he seemed to gain strength from the confident assumption that his partnership with God provided ample justification for everything he did.

According to Crankshaw, Bismarck systematically transformed Prussia into a police state. He deliberately emphasized all the most backward aspects of the Prussian ethos, and he so demoralized the nation that it was led even further away from the mainstream of Western European development. Crankshaw concedes that Bismarck was not directly responsible for the disasters of the 20th century and the debased moral tone of modern politics, but he charges him with bearing a greater indirect responsibility than most.

Crankshaw's contribution to the great historical debate about Bismarck's methods and motives is to say, in effect, that there is no room for debate. He pours scorn on scholars, Germans in particular, who are so stupid, naive, or so lacking in moral principles of their own that they fail to see through the smokescreen of Bismarck's dazzling arguments and eloquent rhetoric to the single-mindedness of his base purpose. Crankshaw thinks that nothing shows so clearly the remarkable and recurrent failure of so many German historians and politicians even to begin to understand the sort of animal Bismarck was than the immensely absurd argument (described as "solemnity carried to infinity; irrelevance to the point of insanity") over what was in Bismarck's mind when he drew up the 1867 constitution for the North German Confederation. It seems the hardest thing in the world for Germans to understand that Bismarck cared nothing at all for Prussia or the German people, and that this constitution was devised merely as a means to render his own power even more absolute than it was under the Prussian system.

In Crankshaw's view, even Bismarck's much-vaunted moderation was a chimera. Bismarck is generally extolled as the statesman par excellence who knew where to stop. Nothing could be more wrong, Crankshaw says. Bismarck's moderation had the calculating quality of an accomplished blackmailer, and the dynamics behind each display of moderation were the same driving forces that pushed him to his most extreme and violent actions. The most frequently cited example of his moderation was his treatment of Austria in 1866, yet he was prepared to spring every mine and contemplate the total destruction of the Habsburg empire to defeat Austria. How could anyone regard this as moderation? In making peace with France in 1871 he showed no moderation whatever, and in fact throughout his career his calculated moderation was outweighed by his reckless violence.

Although Crankshaw makes frequent reference to Bismarck's political genius and diplomatic skill, his chronicle reveals a statesman singularly lacking in these qualities, while his running commentary contributes to the impression of Bismarck's essential incompetence. Crankshaw speaks of "the surprising incoherence of his political thinking." Bismarck could look wiser than anyone else in the world, he could appear far-seeing, there were moments when he could even appear to be good, but, Crankshaw assures us, he was none of these things. His diplomatic practice, stripped of the brilliance of his arguments and the aura of his office, was mere sleight of hand, the genius of a confidence trickster. This great hero of a people who liked to be led was not a leader at all; he was a manipulator. Despite his powerful intellect, Bismarck had very few ideas, and Crankshaw believes it is easy to overlook the simple fact that the ends he served were primitive and crude. During the diplomatic crisis prior to his war with Denmark, for example, his dazzlingly swift political improvisations were all variations on a single theme: aggression. Far from becoming a man of peace after his successful unification of Germany, Bismarck kept Europe in a state of ferment by conjuring up imaginary war scares and playing the powers off against each other. At home, meanwhile, he stirred up hatred and strife with his hopelessly misconceived campaign against the Catholics and his vicious persecution of socialists. Crankshaw complains that Bismarck's hatred of socialism is rarely stressed as it should be. ''There was an air of insanity about it." Yet the anti-socialist law Bismark drew up to indulge this hatred is described by Crankshaw as "almost bottomless in its silliness," "carelessly flung together and, as everyone knew, bound to fail."

Crankshaw writes well, his case against Bismarck is intelligently argued and on the whole convincing. Yet after reading his furious onslaught on Bismarck's character and policies, one is left to wonder how so many students of his statecraft, including Crankshaw, can describe him as a political genius and how he managed to be successful at all. Here we come to the fundamental weakness of Bismarck. Crankshaw is convincing because he has eliminated debate, because he never gives us adequate insight into Bismarck's own reasoning for acting as he did, because, to use the term of the theater, he never gives Bismarck any lines. We are not informed, indeed we are given no hint, of his cogent arguments repudiating military (and liberal!) advocates of preventive war after 1871, his thunderbolts to Vienna to put a stop to irresponsible Austrian moves in the Balkans, his rejection of appeals to intervene in the affairs of other states (whether to protect German investments or come to the aid of suffering humanity) if vital German national interests were not at stake.

Surely it is excessively simplistic to reduce all Bismarck's motives to the common denominator of his lust for domination, to ascribe his success to his genius as a confidence trickster and his superior capacity for bullying and lying. Crankshaw's simplistic formulations leave the reader baffled as to why so many statesmen and scholars, not all of them stupid, naive, or immoral, have regarded Bismarck as one of the most fascinating political figures in his own or indeed in any other era. Crankshaw's Bismarck is not fascinating at all; he is merely wicked--and dull.